World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world.

September 1 st 2016
Appears in Fall 2016

SLEEP, O CULTURE MAKER | Speaking of revolutions, I've been reading Arianna Huffington's new book, The Sleep Revolution. I don't know whether it was an act of irony or hope, but I brought the book with me on a recent twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane (a day after having made a transatlantic flight from London's Heathrow to Detroit). So I cracked open Huffington's book while my body had no idea what time it was, when sleep was elusive even though it was everything it wanted.

The Sleep Revolution reminded me of Lauren Winner's stellar (and convicting) essay on sleep as a countercultural practice. That I read her essay ten years ago but still needed to read Huffington is a sign that bad habits are hard to break. Which is precisely why a sleep 'revolution' isn't going to happen. What we need is sleep rehabituation.

Huffington marshals evidence for why this is so crucial. The book opens with a disturbing litany of data about how exhausted we are, and what that means for our health, safety, and productivity (more specifically: the lack thereof ). We're so exhausted as a society that we might as well be driving drunk.

Sleep, in fact, is crucial for the creative, culture-making work we so often encourage in the pages of Comment. It's one of the reasons Don Draper has a couch in his Mad Men office. His naps aren't laziness—they're incubators of creativity, a dreaming laboratory for innovation. We talk a lot about 'faith and work'; we should also be talking about how sleep makes good work possible— and critical of all the ways dysfunctional cultural systems derail our work (and health) precisely because they treat sleep like an enemy to be vanquished. Thomas Edison positively resented sleep as an imposition on productivity and efficiency. 'Everything which decreases the sum total of man's sleep,' he said, 'increases the sum total of man's capabilities. There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all.' Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that some of the most eloquent defences of the importance of sleep after the Industrial Revolution were articulated by labour movements, particularly— in a moment of tragic irony—the all–African American union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who laboured under exhausting conditions while their clientele slept. Sleep can also be a matter of social justice.

There is a beautiful passage in Ephesians 5 where Paul exhorts, 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.' But in the frenetic pace of our current cultural moment, we might admonish: 'Sleep, O culture maker: Christ is risen and reigns—it doesn't depend on you.'

So, yes, sleep is important for creativity, but it is also a way to remember our creaturehood. Its macho refusal is yet another sign of hubris, a futile penchant to play god. To go to bed is to let go of the myth that everything depends on me. It is a daily practice of Sabbath-keeping—the point of which is to rest in the sovereignty of God.

Huffington cites Ray Bradbury in this vein: 'Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get.' And echoing the creaturely Sabbath-keeping nature of sleep, Huffington comments: 'Surrendering to sleep every night is the ultimate letting-go.'

Winner closes her essay with a snippet from Charles Péguy that remains poignant.

I don't like the man who doesn't sleep,
says God.
Sleep is the friend of man,
Sleep is the friend of God.
Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing
I have created.
And I myself rested on the seventh day. . . .
But they tell me that there are men
Who work well and sleep badly.
Who don't sleep. What a lack of
confidence in me.

PROMISE KEEPING | On another one of those long flights this summer, and a couple of trains, I read Don DeLillo's latest novel, Zero K. (DeLillo must be a guy who gets some sleep to remain this creative, as he approaches eighty this year.)

In many ways, the novel is a fitting supplement to our summer 2016 issue on technology. Set in a near but ambiguous future, the story revolves around a husband and wife who have invested their hope and resources in a cryogenics venture with the hope of achieving immortality. The facility that houses their frozen bodies waiting for later revivification is located in a vaguely Siberian outpost, secluded from the anarchy and climate horrors that have begun to besiege the planet. Teams of physicists and shamans work in the facility, cultivating an aura that is a cross between Bell Labs, a Cold War underground missile silo, and some kind of monastery. I really commend the book to you; I already want to reread it.

DeLillo is unabashed about the quasi-theology that underwrites such technological hope. But what struck me was the way the cryogenics venture, while trying to secure itself against everything, nonetheless hangs on the tenuous thread of trust. While the cryogenic chambers are sealed underground, in layers of concrete, protected from every conceivable natural disaster, the entire venture depends on a trust in coming generations who will honour the contracts of the hopeful albeit frozen denizens of this technological pyramid. The entrepreneurs of immortality who launched this venture have planned for every contingency except the end of virtue itself—the possibility of a coming human generation that eschews the rule of law (everyone has signed contracts), refuses to keep promises, and pursues only their self-interest. There are no cyborgs of virtue.

But then my attention pivoted from the future DeLillo paints to the present in which we find ourselves. You look around and start noticing the web of trust-threads that underwrite our everyday lives. And you start to wonder and worry: What sustains this? How beautiful it is but how easily broken. The threads of trust are both tenacious and tenuous, necessary but not guaranteed. What really worries me—what unleashes a deep rumble of fear in some subterranean cavern of consciousness—is when I see our trustbuilding institutions and incubators crumbling around us. What would happen if we failed to teach the next generation to keep its promises?

BE NOT AFRAID? | A while back Deanna and I watched a documentary series on the 1960s—a decade that preceded our arrival on the scene. At the end of it I came away thinking: 'Did people realize what a chaotic nightmare they were in?' In many ways, the chaos and instability of that decade is almost unimaginable to me.

But I sense that for some of us, 2016 has been a year something like that. I don't mean to compare it to the tragedy of assassinations and violence. I'm talking instead about a kind of existential feeling that things are unraveling, that a social tapestry we could take for granted is fraying and threadbare to the point of tearing. Injustices that simmered below the surface for many of us (who are white) have erupted onto the surface; vitriol and hatred have received a kind of official endorsement in some sectors; terror and violence have made social conventions especially tenuous. So much that we used to be able to count on in our public life together has been disparaged, mocked, and dismissed. I don't think I'm the only one who has asked friends, late at night: 'What the hell is going on?'

And I think it's important that we be honest: we're scared. I had to be honest with myself about this. This summer Deanna and I spent some time in the Netherlands. While on the canals of Amsterdam, rounding the corner near Centraal Station, we heard a thundering boom (this was a day after the terror attack on Istanbul's airport). Assuming the clichéd role of protector, I played it cool ('for Deanna,' I told myself ). A few moments later, in a smaller canal, we heard a tat-tat-tat popping on a side street. Tattat- tat. Pop-pop-pop. I wondered if Deanna felt my chest tighten, even while I kept up the carefree veneer. We never found out what made those noises, but that my instinctual interpretation interpreted the noises as 'bomb' and 'gunfire' says something about a new default. Later Deanna called me out: 'You were scared, and so was I, and we don't have to feel stupid about that.'

I am especially convinced that many young people carry with them a fear and anxiety that they cover over with irony, cynicism, or activism as a way to do something—a way of trying to control what feels uncontrollable. But I wonder if they're also looking for permission to admit their fear—for older generations to stop judging them, telling them war stories that diminish their supposedly coddled and privileged experience. Sure, they haven't faced the horror of the draft and they're insulated from the terrors of war, but they've also grown up in a world in which violence hangs over civilian life like the sword of Damocles. Imagine the images and horror of 9/11 replaying over and over again in the house when you were just six years old and ask yourself how that might lodge deep in your psyche, colouring your very perception of the world.

In this respect, I've always thought that 'Fear not' is at the heart of the gospel somehow. It's not a dismissal. When Jesus or his angels encourage shepherds and disciples to 'be not afraid,' he is in fact recognizing their fear. He doesn't say, 'There's nothing to be afraid of.' Instead the gospel announces: 'Be not afraid.' Let's make room to be honest about our fears. But let's also apprentice ourselves to the Prince of Peace, whose Spirit grants us a kind of peace and courage we could never muster on our own. 'I have said these things to you,' Jesus assures us, 'that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world' (John 16:33).

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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